Asteroids have been making the news this year. Normally those deep-space denizens, many of which hang out in an orbit somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, stay at a safe distance. But there are a few whose extreme orbits carry them close to Earth, and some of them eventually could collide with our fair planet. There was 2012 DA 14, which passed uncomfortably close to us, and on the same day a small asteroid exploded over Russia.
We don’t really know much about asteroids. Twelve years ago the spacecraft NEAR Shoemaker made a headline-grabbing landing on asteroid Eros — without landing gear, mind you — and some other robotics probes have taken a gander, but we have yet to actually study one in person.
Enter the much talked about asteroid retrieval mission. Since it’s a long way to visit an asteroid, and of course it’s very dangerous — why not bring an asteroid to Earth orbit and then send a team of scientists to study it properly?
The idea is nowhere near as far-fetched as it might sound at first blush. NASA is proposing the development of a spacecraft with an electric propulsion system that would boldly go to hunt down and capture an asteroid some 20 to 30 feet across and tow it back close to home. Once in Earth orbit it would be a relatively easy feat to do a close-up examination. Asteroids are veritable treasure troves of natural resources — minerals and metals in particular. As our own terrestrial resources are dwindling and getting ever harder to exploit there are millions of rocks zipping around out there — too small to settle, too far away from the sun to be habitable and none of them able to sustain an atmosphere.
All you need is a spacecraft with a large shopping bag to stash your loot. And since we’re talking about robots and rocks here, time is not really an issue. However, it would have to be one very smart robot. Imagine you discovered the perfect asteroid: not too big, not too small — juuuust right. And then your launch is delayed for some reason, and your entire trajectory is now off. Or your juuuust-right asteroid gets bumped by another asteroid and suddenly finds itself in an entirely new orbit — your spacecraft gets there and the rock is gone. So your asteroid shopping bag needs to be able to make course corrections and constantly identify a number of possible targets, and that picture might change every day.
It’s super-exciting, of course, because it’s a perfect mission for developing new technologies and for getting some real tangible benefits: not only can we assess the possibility of mining a cloud of rocks instead of ruining our own planet, we can also work on solutions on what to do if one of those rocks is on a collision course with Earth. There are lots of brilliant ideas out there, of course, but nothing beats some good old hands-on experimentation.
As with many things — all it takes is money…
Watch this awesome video of how this mission might work: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBy4Ibo7_Us
Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org